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In Extremis

Conditioned To Death: An Interview With Power Trip
Toby Cook , July 3rd, 2013 06:45

Power Trip's Manifest Decimation has just landed in the Quietus' list of favourite albums of 2013 so far. Toby Cook catches up with the band to discuss DIY culture, touring injuries that'll put your teeth on edge and just what on earth the French existentialists have to do with thrash metal

You are simply not afraid enough anymore, and yet you really should be. There used to be a time when all the best thrash and crossover served to constantly remind you that the threat of nuclear war was imminent, that faceless multinational corporations and your own government were out to face-fuck you and that the human race was sleepwalking to oblivion. And then, somehow, in the last 10 or so years it all became about skateboards, beer, zombies and 'Turbo Hyper Ultra Mega Power' – it just wasn't dangerous enough anymore.

Thank the bullet-belted gods, then, for the emergence of Dallas, Texas based crossover five piece Power Trip. And thank those very same gods for their Southern Lord released debut full-length, Manifest Decimation, of which you should be very afraid, because it sounds like some sort of terrifying Cold War army marching unstoppably onwards to the sound of Exodus covering Nuclear Assault. What it sounds like is dangerous: nuclear war is imminent, faceless multinational corporations and your own government are out to face-fuck you and the human race is sleepwalking to oblivion.

In the wake of the album's release then, the Quietus caught up with vocalist Riley Gale to talk relentless touring, total dedication to the DIY attitude and having shows shut down by Sony- and to find out exactly how French existentialist philosophy finds its way into thrash/punk.

S'up Riley! Just before we get stuck into the interview proper can you give us a brief history of how Power Trip came together?

Riley Gale: Blake [Ibanez, guitar] and I had a minor acquaintance from going to hardcore/punk shows back in the mid-2000s; I had been going to shows since '03, but probably met, or at least noticed Blake around 2007. He had an older band that I booked from time to time, and my previous band had just broken up. Blake's band wasn't happy with their singer - Nick [Stewart] and Chris Whetzel], our other guitar and bassist, were in the band too - so they tried to find a replacement or start over. I was obsessed with NYHC and a lot of crossover at the time, and wanted to start a band in the vein of that metallic NYHC sound. Blake just so happened to be starting to get into those bands (Leeway, Cro-Mags, Nuclear Assault, Killing Time, Crumbsuckers, etc.) We talked online about music, wanting to start a band and all that, and then I found out he stayed in the same town as my parents. Next time I was there, we met up one day in February 2008, and wrote a demo and recorded it in his friend's bedroom. That was the beginning of Power Trip.

I kind of hate to use the word 'crossover' to describe you guys, but you seem to tread that line between the likes of Cro-Mags, Nuclear Assault and the Bay Area thrash sound; who are some of your primary influences? And where do you feel you sit musically?

RG: We're influenced by all kinds of extreme and aggressive artists, whether it shines through our music or not. We started out basically worshipping the 'crossover' (not my favourite word either) sounds of the Mags, Killing Time, Breakdown, Ludichrist, Crumbsuckers, Nuke Assault, The Icemen, Outburst, Sick Of It All, Leeway... There's a lot of them. We were always influenced by thrash and the Bay Area, but we just didn't have the chops for it quite yet; we loved DRI, Excel, the Big Four, Exodus and all that, but our song writing wasn't up to par of those legends. We also loved the underrated German hardcore band True Blue and bands like Anti-Cimex and Driller Killer. We're still influenced by all those bands, but now we've begun to let other elements from death metal, traditional doom metal, power metal, d-beat hardcore punk (especially Swedish/Scandinavian), and more, influence the way we write songs. But we also strive to find something unique rather than take direct cues from any of those bands.

I read somewhere that you've read a lot on existentialism and post-modern French philosophy, which is not what you'd expect to read about a vocalist in a thrash/crossover band (no offense!) How did you get into that and how, if at all, do those ideas work their way into Power Trip?

RG: Damn, I could go for a while on this one. I was a writing major in college and I discovered a professor who became my academic mentor. He got his PhD at 27 and is the most brilliant person I know. I can thank Dr. Kyle Jensen for not only pushing me academically and artistically, but teaching me critical thinking skills, and introducing me to some of the greatest, most influential works from thinkers I've ever experienced. Foucault, Derrida, Burke, Deleuze & Guattari, Žižek, and more. I'm into existentialism and transformation, like what Tolstoy went through, and there's definitely song topics that deal with that. Because hey... if you're going to be a conscious individual in this world, consider yourself attempting to be intellectual, you've got to constantly question your role in the universe and embrace change. Everything changes. Society is like space – a swirling mass of different elements, intermingling in different densities, causing reactions from interactions that affect their environments... Creation and destruction. Even though we can't directly observe it, it is constantly moving and changing. Time and perspective are everything when observing what goes on around you.

I relate to Foucault and many of the French post-modern thinkers because it's all about examining social phenomena, examining the environments that lead to those phenomena, the social conditioning as a result of them, theorising paradoxes in established ideas, and the general attitude of obliterating traditional perspectives. That intrigues the hell out of me, and makes for some killer song topics. An author named Kenneth Burke coined the term 'Perspective by Incongruity', which is a rhetorical device meant to take a word, phrase, or idea that belongs by custom and characteristic to a certain category, but by rational thought and rhetorical manoeuvring, you wrench it loose, turn it on its head, and metaphorically apply it to a different set of characteristics.

I wrote a new song on the new LP, 'Conditioned To Death', which was influenced directly by the Foucault book Discipline & Punish. In less eloquent language, it basically comments on the fucked up penal system, where punishment in society has moved from torturing the body with physical pain, to torturing, and ultimately killing, the soul through things like isolation and sensory deprivation, and how much more awful and damaging those acts are to the human spirit through psychological suffering. Songs like 'Hammer of Doubt', 'Divine Apprehension', and others, often at times boil down to 'You think you know how it is, but you really have no idea' – plenty of songs about war and our demise at our own hands. But ultimately, I just want to write songs that make people think about something in a way they may not have thought of before.

The artwork for Manifest Decimation is fucking brilliant – in the best way it really has that Reign In Blood, 80s, fear of nuclear war vibe to it – who is responsible for it? What's the story there? And how does it tie into the themes of the album?

RG: Paolo Girardi, or 'Madman' Girardi to many, is from some mysterious cave in Italy. My incredibly talented artist friend Jason Barnett turned me on to Giradi's artwork from a Cvlt Nation page, and his style was everything I was looking for. I emailed Paolo, sent him the lyrics and the themes, ideas, and images that I was all about, and let him run wild. I really had no idea for exactly how I wanted it, but I couldn't have been more happy with it. It was like he knew what I wanted before I knew it myself. It was like he ripped the image right out of my dreams (or nightmares!)

One thing that seems to be dividing the people I've spoken to about the LP is the sheer amount of reverb used throughout, especially on the drums – what was the thinking behind that decision? It certainly seems unusual given that a lot of out-and-out thrash bands are deathly afraid of using any reverb whatsoever!

RG: We aren't going to pretend we're doing anything groundbreaking or that thrash bands aren't a dime a dozen. But we wanted to go very old school and have that massive, blown out sound. That was how the drums and music sounded for all the older records we love the most. One of the biggest bummers to our band regarding new modern thrash records and bands is the clean production. I think a clean production absolutely kills the intensity. We wanted a sound that was loud, punishing, and sounded evil, not some clean, crisp, generic riffs you might hear over the highlights of last night's Sportscenter. It's nice that the reverb is polarising for some, because it lets us know that we actually took a risk, created something somewhat unique. Rather than "the production sounds exactly like . . .", we're actually being commended for taking a riskier approach to our sound, and some can't quite pinpoint what we were thinking. I love that. I'd rather take that kind of risk than rehashing the production styles of a million bands before us.

As a band you've been around for a number of years now and have released a fair few recordings off of your own backs. Why wait until now to put together a full length album?

RG: We've had some personnel changes (three drummers in five years), Blake went to college in Arizona for a year, and Chris Ulsh, our current drummer, lives in Austin. So it took some time to build chemistry and get the songs written. Blake has like three releases full of riffs recorded on his computer, it took some time to find the choice cuts and make sure that this record would be all killer and no filler.

Manifest Decimation is being put out by Southern Lord, who are a pretty prestigious underground label these days, how did they become involved?

RG: Sam Velde, who does Power Of The Riff concerts, had caught us in Austin a couple years ago. He loved the set and went to Greg [Anderson] and told him to check us out. Todd Jones of Nails did the same thing. Greg loved it, couldn't wait to sign us, and that was that. It was surreal to be contacted by Greg and have him ask to join the label, but it was really as simple as that.  

How important to you is the DIY ethic?

RG: Very important. We're not a band that likes to be told what to do, and as long as this band is around, we will have DIY ethics in our every day operations. I've built everything in my life on a DIY attitude before I knew what DIY meant, and it's never let me down. Only I can let myself down. I still book shows in the Dallas area, all DIY, no guarantees for the bands, and I've always overpaid whatever the 'suggested' guarantee was. We still book tours ourselves, and anything we don't do, we keep in the family... getting friends to design and print our merch, go on tour with us, record us, etc. Southern Lord was the first step we've taken where we decided to work with a person we didn't know previously.

I understand that for a while you ran a warehouse space in Dallas where you put on everything from hip-hop shows to wrestling matches – how did that happen? And what was the idea behind it?

RG: We wanted a true, no bullshit, no elitist, DIY space in Dallas that everyone could use. We found this perfect joint that was a Spanish nightclub, restaurant and convenience store that had basically been used as storage for 8 years. We got the landlords to clean it up, and we started doing shows there, building walls, and fixing the place up. The plan was to build bedrooms and live there. It had a washer/dryer hook up, restaurant sized kitchen, shower, and everything we'd need to live there comfortably and do killer shows. Unfortunately, our landlords turned out to be gigantic piles of scum, and to make a very long story of our battle with them short, we bailed on the property. I'm taking them to court myself though, and hope to get money back to start another new spot. We learned a lot of good lessons on what, and what not, to do with your own DIY space.

I heard a story about a show you dudes played in New York where you dived off stage and landed right on your skull (which sounds fucking painful by the way). Is that right? What's the story – hopefully you're ok and there were no serious or lasting injuries?

RG: We played the Acheron in Brooklyn and I slipped off the stage, which was already about four feet tall to begin with. I fell straight backward, and landed on the sharp corner of a step leading up to the stage. It was like falling onto the top of a pyramid. I thought I had impaled my kidney and was checking for blood. The pain was so bad it went up to my eyeballs and partially blinded me. The wind was completely knocked out of me. I didn't know if I was going to pass out, vomit, piss my pants, or do all at once. I could taste iron in my mouth. The champs in the band chugged through the song without skipping a beat while I attempted to make noises out of my mouth but only came out with shitty whimpers. Apparently they didn't know what happened.

After the song, I was somehow able to regain my composure and finish the set. I was waiting around after to just piss blood and die, but I didn't. I don't have health insurance, so fuck the ER. I'm not exactly sure what I did, but I definitely had deep bruising on my kidney, lower back muscles, and spine. Definitely tore up my sciatic nerve. If I moved to wipe my ass or anything, it felt like a hot knife was stabbing me in the back. After about a month, the pain dulled to a nagging, growing-pain like ache. It still bothers me every now and again, but I think, hope, I did not do any permanent damage.

Your rooftop show at SXSW got shut down halfway through, right? What was that about?

RG: Sony had the bright idea of putting us on a show and then filling the venue up with all their expensive equipment, at a free show within our friends' reach! I guess they didn't do much research about us beforehand. There was a wall of nine 50" flat screens behind us while we played. I'm pretty sure most people can guess what happened. But let's just say lots of things were broken, thrown, smoked, and smashed, and we were shut down and politely asked to get the fuck out asap.

Now that the album's been released, what's next for Power Trip?

RG: Touring. Hopefully seeing as much of the world as we can, ballin' out of control. Writing some more new songs. Head banging. Doing badass shit!

And finally: In what state of mind should one be in to best enjoy Power Trip?

RG: Volume knob at 11 and a cool buzz; marijuana and whisky is my personal choice!

Power Trip's Manifest Decimation is out now via Southern Lord